The Oxford Centre for Gender, Identity, and Subjectivity (CGIS) and the Glasgow Centre for Gender History (CGH) have collaborated for several years on an annual summer school for Masters students, PhD students, and early career researchers. Rozen Whitworth (Oxford) reviews the autumn colloquium held on 11 November 2019 on the theme of 'Intersubjectivities'.
Sian Pooley opened the day with an illuminating breakdown of three kinds of historical intersubjectivity that we might consider throughout the day: intersubjectivity in the interpersonal dynamics of oral history, interpersonal dynamics in the past, and the historians sense of self in, or towards, their research. It was very productive to have these grounding our discussion, as it continually drew our reflections back to overarching questions of intersubjectivity and how they might overlap or interpenetrate throughout our historical work.
With a strong showing of papers on oral history, the interpersonal dynamics of the interviewer and interviewee kept resurfacing, along with the historian’s own investment in and relation to the subjects of their oral histories. Charlotte James Robertson’s paper on The Scottish Women’s Aid Archive raised questions of authority between the interviewer and interviewee in relation to age, their relative perceptions of each others generational politics, and knowledge of particular issues. Furthermore, Charlotte extended this to examine the mediation between the historian, the original interviewer, and the interviewee implicit in the reading of transcripts of oral histories. The deconstruction of the original interviewers’ questions and how they followed them up provided an interesting point of departure in discussion. From this, the idea surfaced of interviewing original interviewers.
Further to this, the idea of what might be lost through the translation of the interview, with all its tensions, hesitations, and interpersonal dynamics, into video and particularly into transcript was also explored. Amanda Gavin’s presentation on witness testimony from the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry highlighted the both the challenge of reading transcripts of previous interviews and statements, without access to either the people involved or an audio recording of the interviews on which it was based. Of particular note was the absence of any verbal hesitations, such as pauses or fillers in such official statements, making invisible the absences or hesitations implicit in the retelling of a life history. This was paralleled by Hannah Yoken’s decisive example of the intense expressive power of body language and movement in relation to her work on feminist self-defence in Denmark and Finland. Seeing Sunniva Drake, a Finnish self-defence activist, gesticulate in her bright pink jumpsuit (https://www.ruutu.fi/video/2600087), brought home how dynamic body language is in mediating the interpersonal dynamics of oral history. This led to a discussion of the use of visual documentation in oral history interviews as a way to include the intercorporeal aspects of the exchange. The ambivalence of visual recording as historical tool was foregrounded as we explored the potential it had to compromise the intimacy of the interview whilst it enabled paralinguistic features, like body language, to be recorded.
Hannah also testified to the issue of a shifting balance of authority that Charlotte’s presentation raised, noting not only the potential imbalance of age and knowledge but the impact on the interview of the interviewee having rehearsed and processed their own life experiences where the interview is hearing it for the first time. She also raised the question of how interviewers might share authority whilst they are transcribing, interpreting, or even translating the words of their interviewees. Discussion therefore encompassed the absences implicit in the ways we currently do oral history - its unevenness as well as it emancipatory potential.
The interpersonal dynamics of the past, particularly the concept of relational personhood, that is, the importance of relationships to the construction of the self, were also frequently raised. My own paper looked at the constitutive relationship between the human, the technological, and the natural in a 1980s text by Etel Adnan. A discussion of Adnan’s iterative and meditative relationship to one single mountain raised the question of how encompassing the definition of ‘relationship’ in regards to relational selfhood might be and whether intersubjectivity in this sense could extend to inanimate objects as places of meditation, self-exploration, and self-construction. Discussion on this topic also explored intersubjectivity at a macro level, occurring not only at personal level but as a systemic and structural processes. Thomas McAuliffe and Ella Ditri’s presentations of manuscript sources of the eleventh and twelfth centuries started productive discussions on what we might glean about the construction of selves in the early medieval period as well as approaching different historical ways of formulating the self. Thomas, in exploring the construction of self through 11th century estate management, pointed to indications of orality in manuscripts as a way to understand their use, and therefore their impact on both the people reading them, and those listening them. Similarly, Mathilde Michaud’s investigation of gender, Catholicism and nationalism in nineteenth century French Canada brought to light a similar co-construction of the self in service of a national hegemony. Their nuanced explorations of the dissemination of hegemonic discourses of gender and of social hierarchy offer an exploration of intersubjectivity mediated not by individual action or interaction but by the state and the construction of the subject within it.
Also orientated around gender and class, Ella explored the twelfth century marriage market and the presentation of women within it. Through a ’mentalities’ approach, she explored the potential to unpick the subjectivities of all those involved in the record, from those deciding what is recorded and why, to those affected by their inclusion and representation in the records. How people were categorised and how official recordings of them vary offered diverse entry points into the source and into the presentation of women. Her notes on how royal authority and the law shaped the experiences of noblewomen raised discussion on how the absences of such records speak, and how we might think of the lost oral testimonies which might have involved them.
Wendy Wiertz’s paper on the many valences of Belgian War Lace from the First World War, showed how, through a single lace scarf, the varying emotions and purposes of the item might be unpicked along the contours of gender, class, and borders. Reaching from the ambivalent attitudes of the anonymous women artists who made the lace to the attempts by the Belgian government to assert both a seamless narrative of gratitude and an image of national pride and craftsmanship, Wendy explored the functioning of absent voices in intersubjectivity as it worked across varying levels of Belgian society. Discussion of Wendy’s paper explored the self-occlusion of the women artisans who did not sign their lace because of their shame towards being associated with lacemaking. This raised the possibility of developing new methodologies that work around such anonymity and the desire of historians for the names they cannot recover.
The value of self-reflexiveness in research was noted throughout the day, as was the growing trend of historians exploring their own involvement in their research. The most explicit way in which this was explored was through the investigation of one’s own family. Drawing together Freya Marshall Payne’s oral history of her mother’s involvement in the Greenham Commons movement and Ebba Strutzenbladh’s exploration of her great-great aunt’s letters in her moves between Sweden and America in the late nineteenth-century, raised questions around doing work relating to one’s own family was raised both within and outside the topic of history. How might such an investment of the researcher be fruitful, as well as potentially problematic? How far does the relation of not only the historian to their family subject, but the role of their family as archivers, selecting, organising, and interpreting historic family material affect research?
I found sessions based on source exploration - a brief introduction to a particular source which was then opened to discussion - innovative in the colloquium setting. Ranging from 11th century manuscripts to feminist self-defence in the late twentieth century, placing diverse sources alongside one another encouraged a very interactive form of discussion. By privileging sources in their partially digested state, the format allowed us to dive deeply into the possibilities of intersubjectivity as they present themselves on a micro-level.
Overall, the presentations were all brilliant and memorable and the discussion was thoughtful and engaged. On behalf of everyone involved I want to say an enormous thanks to Meryem Kalayci for organising a wonderful and fruitful day. The day went seamlessly (and exactly to time!) and it was a lovely environment in which to have such inclusive and engaged discussion. Another big thank you must go to Nuha Abdo and the Syrian Sisters for the delicious food throughout the day. I think I speak for everyone when I say that the baklava was the best I’ve ever had! Thank you too, to the staff of the Radcliffe Humanities building as those who make it possible to have our event. The tea and coffee fuelled the discussion and it was a lovely space in which to spend our day.
It was an enormous pleasure to be able to meet with the members of the Glasgow Centre of Gender History. The wealth of nuanced, sensitive, and rigorous work on gender they brought was a real treat to be able to listen to. I feel very privileged and inspired to be part of an amazing network of gender historians extending across the country.
Though I feel as though I have enough from the colloquium to chew over for an entire year, I’m already looking forward to next year’s colloquium in Glasgow.